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Is this a return to the Cold War?

03 August 2012

As the Pussy Riot trial begins, Michael Bourdeaux examines the Patriarchate's attitudes


Behind bars: the Pussy Riot women, above, from left: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Mariya Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, in court last week; below: the protest in February

Behind bars: the Pussy Riot women, above, from left: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Mariya Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, in court last week; below:...

Riot it certainly was. The one minute and 30 seconds of the protest, recorded on YouTube, with an extra minute added, are explosive, but the still photos in the British press gave no idea of the atmosphere of the desecration of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow on 21 February ( News, 27 April)

The young women members of Pussy Riot, their faces concealed behind masks, set out to cause a scandal, and they certainly succeeded. Three women (more were involved) have appeared in court, and a full trial began on Monday.

They use the one name only, usually written in English (not Cyrillic) lettering. The women, all three in their 20s, and two of them young mothers, went free after the event, but were arrested more than a week later. The defence argues that they were not the ones who demonstrated. The mothers should have been given bail, but the court refused.

The intention of the protesters was laudable, even though many - outside Russia, as well as inside - question the method. The protesters consider that President Vladimir Putin's re-election, and its alleged irregularities, has signalled a retrogression towards the authoritarianism of the past. In particular, they aimed to pillory Patriarch Kirill and those forming a phalanx around him in the Moscow Patriarchate for their open support of President Putin, before as well as after the election earlier this year.

They chose their location carefully. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is only a stone's throw from the Kremlin, and opposite the Pushkin Museum - an area where tourists throng. It is deeply symbolic of current Church-State co-operation, having been built in the 1990s to replace its predecessor, which was destroyed by Stalin in 1931, in an act of violence captured on film. The original, begun in 1839, was a monument to Russian nationalism, celebrating victory over Napoleon in 1812.

The violation of what, to the Moscow Patriarchate, is one of its most sacred spaces could not have been more raucous or visually provocative. Four are visible in the group. They begin by crossing themselves, then launch into a punk song, with recorded backing, crying: "Virgin Mother, banish Putin . . . Your corrupt church leaders go in procession in black limousines - bring in the money. The Patriarch believes in Putin; better to believe in God." In between, some expressions earn four stars for obscenity.

Patriarch Kirill has reacted by sending a circular letter to all his churches in Moscow, to be read out after the liturgy. It was an "Appeal to the Procurator General", encouraging parishioners to sign in support, requesting the maximum sentence for the women: five years, for blasphemy and aggravated hooliganism, a nebulous concept originating in Soviet law. Then he conducted a service in which some 20 bishops in full regalia lined up to purge the blasphemy.

In preparing this article, I spent several hours surveying the 723 entries on YouTube (the editors say that they have omitted many others that are repetitive). I was immediately struck by the fact that the Patriarch has intensified the scandal that he had hoped to nullify. The entries may not contain the names of world statesmen or church leaders, but by the time I had looked at the first 100, there was already evidence, with video clips, of popular protests in London, New York, San Francisco, Prague, Paris, and Havana - the list goes on. Most surprising, perhaps, were one in Tel Aviv and reportage by al-Jazeera.

Rock groups are being galvanised worldwide, and foreign musicians have been voicing their support while on tour in Russia. On 22 July, Franz Ferdinand and the Red Hot Chili Peppers wore Pussy Riot T-shirts when they gave a concert in Moscow.

What of the more restrained protests in Russia? The circulation of appeals and documents asking for support in the West for the imprisoned women takes us right back to the days of the Cold War, and our attempts at Keston College to make the facts known. This time, however, the world's press seems to be taking the lead, but there are many appeals that have not achieved publicity, and, as considered responses to the Moscow scandal, some need analysis.

One that has been reported briefly in the press was signed by 203 representatives of the arts: theatre and film directors, actors, writers, publishers, musicians, and artists; more than 30,000 have now added their names electronically. The list is impressive. It is one that even the revived FSB (formerly the KGB) will not be able to silence. They consider, in a brief statement, that what the three are charged with was not a serious crime, and pursuing it as such undermines the Russian judicial system.

One open letter by a retired priest, Fr Vyacheslav Vinnikov, is of significance. He is 74, and studied for the priesthood in the difficult times of the late 1950s. He likens the baying of the mob, led by the Patriarch, for the blood of the three, to those who called: "Crucify him!" He goes on to ask whether the suffering of these women, who are "completely innocent", does not move the heart of every Christian.

This leads him to reflect - and it is here that the action of the Patriarch and the Bishops has already caused serious internal harm to the cause of the Church - that, during the persecution in recent Communist times, church leaders were silent.

Their only protests, he says, were against those who did raise their voice in defence of the Church. He names, in particular, Fr Gleb Yakunin, who wrote the most complete exposé of the persecution, and who, for his pains, was drummed out of the priesthood and into prison. The Church, de facto, aided the atheist state rather than its victims, Fr Vinnikov says. There has never been expiation or apology for this betrayal, and the Patriarch's action shows that old attitudes are still prevalent.

The first organised protest letter in Moscow in support of the protest was addressed to the Archbishop of York and to Xenia Dennen, who chairs the Keston Institute ( Back Page Interview, 13 July), as well as to the Keston council. The letter comes officially from Russia's most significant human-rights activists, the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of whom is the Revd Gleb Yakunin, now a priest of another jurisdiction. The signatories include Fr Vinnikov and another priest, as well as journalists and academics, 18 in all.

They invoke the ancient Russian tradition of the "Holy Fool", who was able, with impunity, to criticise the tsar. St Basil was one of them, and "Today his well-educated and courageous followers are kept behind bars."

Yelena Volkova, a respected believer who is active in the women's defence, confirms that they are educated and active Christians, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova having been one of the highest flyers of her year in the philosophy faculty of Moscow University. They have written impressive letters in the degradation of their prison cells. In a snatch of their interrogation on YouTube, they come across as quiet and modest people.

While Keston is not, and has never been, a campaigning organisation, Mrs Dennen comments: "Keston has always tried to illuminate the background to events in Russia concerning the Church, and is actively attempting to put on record a broader picture than what has appeared in the press so far. The Moscow Patriarchate's support for the case against the three women does it no credit, and denies the central command of the gospel to show love and compassion."

Patriarch Kirill, who is already the subject of much criticism for his lavish lifestyle, might have let the whole episode blow over quietly, and then he would have done far less harm to the cause of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Canon Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Institute, in Oxford.


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